In memoriam: Graeme Nicholson (1936–2021)

Published: March 1, 2021

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The department is sad to announce the passing of our colleague Graeme Nicholson, who died last Sunday at the age of 84.

Graeme did his PhD in our department under the supervision of Emil Fackenheim, joining the teaching staff in 1967. He was an expert in Heidegger, Kant, Hegel, and other philosophers of the Continental tradition. In 2002, after 35 years of active service, he retired and became a Professor Emeritus.

Our condolences to the family and friends he left behind.

We publish here a personal tribute by his onetime student and later colleague, Professor Rebecca Comay.

All the Rest Is Anecdotes . . .

When it was time to introduce a new philosopher in his lectures, Graeme sometimes liked to recall that little quip of Heidegger—“Aristotle was born, he thought, he died, all the rest is anecdotes.” Then he would tell the students some stories. In this spirit, I offer a few anecdotes from my years as Graeme’s student.

In the Classroom

Graeme was a legendary teacher. All his students have vivid memories of him in the classroom—how he would stop mid-thought, his whole body swaying forward, eyes squeezed tight, tongue pressed between teeth, how his face would suddenly light up as he landed on what he had been waiting for and suddenly the whole thing would spring into focus. It might have been a passage in Husserl that had arrested him; it might have a been a student’s question (he listened to us with the same intensity with which he read texts, and every question was a good one); it might have been the arc of an argument or a sudden association—it always felt like a discovery and you never knew when to expect it. We would sometimes imitate him after class, over coffee, not to mock but because we needed to process what had just happened; it was exciting, disarming, disconcerting, and we didn’t quite know what to make of it. It was as if we had been given front-row seats to see thinking in action, except it wasn’t a performance: there was nothing histrionic and we weren’t spectators. Graeme was thinking in our presence, he was showing what it meant to grapple with a question—I think that is the best word—he invited us to think with him, he showed us that philosophy was something you did together, but that you also did alone in the company of others and it didn’t always have to be about outsmarting everyone. You didn’t need to talk all the time, it was OK to listen; thinking took time and you couldn’t always schedule when an idea might happen. He was the teacher, we were the students, his knowledge was limitless, his erudition profound, we soaked it up, but there was something so unguarded and guileless about the way he spoke with us that these hierarchies melted away and we just wanted to be there. I suppose there could have been a cultishness or groupiness, given his charisma, but I honestly don’t remember any of this happening. He must have somehow known instinctively how to divert all that.

A True Mentor

Graeme was my thesis supervisor and I cannot imagine a more wonderful one. He had no interest in playing Doktorvater—he had no investment in coercive mentorship, discipleship, cloning, influence, branding, succession—and this is one of the things that made him so powerful as a mentor. (I can’t overstate what this meant for a young woman studying philosophy in the 1980s at a time when the profession was [even more of] a bastion of white male entitlement. As for continental philosophy, marginalized from mainstream philosophy, it was its own little hothouse, propagating on the sidelines in little clans and coteries and spreading through secret handshakes.) I’m not sure I would have had the stomach for any of this if Graeme hadn’t been there during those years. He opened up a breathing space in the stifling world of graduate school, and he continues to be an inspiration. Graeme gave meaning to the word inspiration: it meant pausing to take a breath; it meant breathing life into very old and crackly texts; it meant discovering an idea of such breathtaking simplicity that you felt as if you’d always known it. I think revelatory is not too strong a description for the kind of insights Graeme offered. Inspiration also meant engaging seriously with some of the wildest moments in Plato’s Phaedrus. In his book on this dialogue, my favorite of all Graeme’s books, there are some beautiful pages about divine mania—what we today call, more prosaically, poetic inspiration—and what can happen when a philosopher bangs into this.

Graeme gave me the intellectual space and nourishment I needed. It turned out that we had quite dissimilar philosophical tastes and sensibilities, and these differences increased over the years as my own focus and orientation shifted. Graeme was bemused at first, then slightly appalled, when I went down the Derrida rabbit hole and climbed out two years later with a very long dissertation on Heidegger’s crossing out of the word Being. It wasn’t his cup of tea. He was skeptical, intrigued, occasionally irritated, unpersuaded, unflinchingly supportive. I never felt pressured to change my tune or to change a word, although I do remember him wondering once, perhaps only half in jest, that while my writing showed much esprit, I might want to consider cultivating a bit more deutsche Gründlichkeit, not to mention maybe a dose of old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon common sense. Coming from someone else it would have felt condescending or belittling, but I knew exactly what he meant, and in any case Graeme himself was someone who managed to combine such exemplary scholarly rigour with such bracing common sense that I took it to be a serious question. It had nothing to do with philosophical “style” or cultural mannerisms. It had everything to do with what philosophy was all about, why it sometimes had to be so clumsy and laborious, what it had to do with regular life, what the point was. These are basic questions, but they can be unnerving for those of us who work with texts that are distant in time or opaque in other ways, often requiring immense efforts of philological labour and resisting easy capture.


I was reminded of this conversation the other day, when I heard of Graeme’s death, and was thinking about how he was writing to the end of his life. His learnedness was profound and he wore it lightly—he could move from an exegetical rumination on a Greek participle to a description of someone picking up a pencil—he made everything make sense, he made everything slow down, he pulled you into the text, he put you back at the kitchen table, he made things easy and difficult all at once and for the same reason. His most recent book (I hesitate to call it his last because I suspect there may be several more still sitting on his desk) was published just two years ago, when he was 82, the fruit of a lifetime of immersion in the salt mines of Heidegger scholarship. It is a searching, meticulously researched study of Heidegger’s 1930 address (and the later essay bearing that same title) on the essence of truth, Das Wesen der Wahrheit. There’s a thicket of philology. Graeme is sifting through the manuscript variants, the multiple revisions, commentaries, interpretations, he’s talking about Heidegger’s retrieval of the Greek sense of truth as aletheia, about truth in neo-scholasticism and neo-Kantianism, about the protocols of science and philosophy, about the politicization of thinking (this stew of writing and revision was going on during the period of Heidegger’s engagement with the Nazis; it’s painful for all of us who are invested in Heidegger’s philosophy to have to think about this sordid matter and it’s impossible not to)—and then he’s suddenly talking about today: I mean right now. He’s talking about the discourse around free speech and self-expression, about social media, about so-called post-truth and fake news, and about how Heidegger, of all people, can help us make sense of this. He actually does mean all of us, philosophers, non-philosophers, inside or outside the university. Suddenly the most bristlingly technical vocabulary falls away and we’re back around the kitchen table. There is the lovely Phaedrus book. Graeme is asking the simplest question in his usual limpid manner—why did Plato write dialogues? Suddenly he’s quoting Wilamowitz-Moellendorff at length—that Wilamowitz, the one who beat up on Nietzsche—Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, coming back from the dead to give such a stirring description of Plato’s need to write, which turns out to be the need to play, the drive, the drivenness, of philosophy. And now I want to go read Wilamowitz. This is such beautiful scholarship that it takes your breath away.

Conversation & Kindness

When I say that Graeme gave me space to write my thesis is not to suggest that he was disengaged or inattentive, or that either of us thought a student should need permission. Graeme’s courteousness went way beyond liberalism or politeness. We often disagreed, but it never felt like sparring or even about trying to persuade one another. He would query me, we would spend hours talking about a German word, I’d press some point, he would close his eyes, his face would furrow, eventually his face would light up and he would nod, just like in the classroom, ah, I see—he was totally unconvinced, but he saw—and those nods were all I needed to keep writing. We met often while I was writing my thesis, sometimes for entire afternoons. Sometimes we talked about my thesis, mostly about other things. It’s the other things I remember most. We spent many hours talking about philosophical and literary form, about the difference between philosophy as a pedagogical practice and as a writerly discipline, the difference between speech and writing, between voice and text. We’d talk about Heidegger’s peculiar relationship to prepositions, we’d talk about hyphens, we talked about Heidegger as a writer, as a teacher, and as Freiburg University Rector. He’d tell me stories about his years with Gadamer in Germany. We talked about Hegel and Marx, about whether there was a difference between interpreting and changing the world, about Hegel at the lectern and in his study, and about whether the lectern was a pulpit; we always ended up talking about Kierkegaard’s “upbuilding discourses.” We always seemed to come back to the Phaedrus, about written and unwritten doctrine, about philosophical friendship, community, koinonia, and about the meaning of dialectic. Graeme taught me everything I know. It’s those hours in his office that I remember most about being a graduate student. I eventually threw my thesis away after almost a decade of struggling to fix it—I broke a publishing contract, which was professional folly at the time, I’m not sure what I was thinking, and Graeme did try his best to talk me out of that stupidity—but I will treasure those hours forever.  They’re so much better than any dissertation.

I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone so kind and generous. I had a bad accident in my third year of grad school, a neck injury that left me bedridden for the better part of a year, unable to concentrate, scrambled by pain and painkillers, thesis mouldering in the corner. Graeme came to my house one day to visit me. The shock of having my supervisor sitting in my living room must have unleashed a tidal wave of neurotic anxiety; I remember feeling stressed and panicky, stammering about how I was just about to get back to writing, I’d make up for lost time, I’d have a draft of something or other by the summer. I remember Graeme sitting there quietly with his head slightly tilted to the side while I kept rattling on, finally interrupting me to say that he had just come to bring me some green tea and a volume of Racine which he thought I might enjoy. He told me a story about his father, who had been forced for reasons of illness to take a year-long break from his regular job. During the forced pause from daily life, he realized that his vocation was to become a pastor (I think). I can’t remember any of the details, or even if it was his father he was talking about, but the point was: this person quit his job, he changed his life, he found his purpose. “He became a more serious person,” Graeme said. Those words got me. I don’t think he was advising me to find another métier, and he wasn’t just reminding me about what we today like to call the “work/life balance.” Serious was also an odd word coming from him. Graeme was completely allergic to the “spirit of seriousness”—that’s Sartre’s code word for bad faith: intellectuals desperate for orientation who cling to an inflated idea of their own important mission (philosophers are prone to this conceit). I think he was talking about contingency or finitude, about time, limitation, mortality, possibility, impossibility. I suddenly understood what he had been teaching us all these years about Heidegger’s ontic-ontological difference, why it mattered, why it was so hard to get your head around it. It was ultimately an ethical issue, although Graeme would have never used that kind of portentous language. The difficulty was not because of some abstract metaphysical subtlety—Sein, être, einai—but just the opposite. It was the pressing concreteness of that infinitive that was so elusive: What does it mean to be (a philosopher, a student, a person) in the face of absolute limitation?  What does it take to be a serious person? What does it take to have seriousness without pomposity? Call it what you want: seriousness, authenticity, integrity, staunchness, humility, friendship, openness, joyful curiosity—such old-fashioned words, but Graeme was not vain enough to fuss about these things. This was Graeme Nicholson.